by Walt Stearns
LIVE-ABOARD DIVING ADVENTURE
WITHOUT THE HIGH COST
by Walt Stearns, Nov. 1997
Undoubtedly, live-aboard's have changed the face of dive travel. In particular they provide a means for achieving a better sense of adventure than any other option available. Being out on the water, with nothing but water, except for the company of other shipmates, the sky and possibly an island or two is an experience most divers find pleasurable. And, finding a good vessel in any divable corner of the globe is seldom a problem. However, choosing one in a destination where the diving is hot can turn into bewildering experience, with more boats to choose from than fingers and toes combined. A prime example is The Bahamas.
Spanning 100,000 square miles of tropical Atlantic Ocean, harboring some 3,200 small islands and cays scattered throughout, The Bahamas sheer geographic scope makes it a virtual live-aboard playground.
The concept behind the Bahamian 'Discover Our Diversity' campaign was not derived through happenstance. From Miami, between its vast stretches of shallows, affording multitudes of colorful reefs, wrecks, striking walls that fall to the abyss, to its strange geologic formations called Blue Holes, with mind boggling depths of 300 feet or more, few places can equal The Bahamas as a single destination. Add to that a comprehensive assortment of marine critters, some smaller than a matchhead, to those with proportions of a large truck (whales most certainly pass through here), it would be reasonable to conclude finding spectacular diving in this corner of the Western Hemisphere is a given.
As expected, The Bahamas are not without a sizeable number of marvelous vessels equipped for those who want to get the most of the quality diving. But most live-aboard cruises can also be costly. Unless, of course, you happen to choose a Blackbeard's Cruise.
Founded in 1979 with the Sea Explorer (a custom built, wide beam, 65 foot sloop specifically designed from the keel up for handling 20 to 23 divers as a group), owners Bruce and Peggy Purdy's original intent was to not follow the likes of 'a typical cruise ship.' Their idea was, and still is, to provide 'true, out-island diving adventures at reasonable prices.' Meaning, you need not burn a huge hole in your bank account to get away on a live-aboard yet still gain all the advantages; comfort, service and, of course, access to some of the most incredible diving in The Bahamas. A short time later, the Sea Explorer was joined by two identical sister ships named the Morning Star and Pirate's Lady.
Why sailboats? For one, the ability to use sail helps lower costs by burning less fuel to traverse large stretches of water. In addition, sailing is fun. There is a bit of romance to making your way across the waves to some point on the horizon, with the wind at your back and the canvas taut. Blackbeard's also encourages their passengers actively partake, if they wish, in the process of raising the sails and even manning the helm under the watchful tutelage of the captain. For those interested, they throw in some of the basic fundamentals of seamanship along the way.
For stowage of personal gear, all three vessels feature a series of top access gear holds for stowing mask, fins, regulator, BC, etc., below the main deck's molded passenger bench seats amidship. When ready to get wet, grab your gear from its stowage space, pick a tank from one of the boat's two tank rack/fill station boxes and set up. A crew member helps you in and a giant stride later you're diving. Afterward, reboard via the boat's large stern (rear for you land-lubbers) dive ladder.
Although each vessel does feature a large camera rinse tank next to the ladder, there are no dedicated camera tables on board. If need be, the main cabin's below deck dining table will easily suffice when meals are not taking place.
Below deck, passenger accommodations are divided between four separate, air-conditioned cabins, each featuring a series of Pullman-type bunks (resembling those in train sleeper cars) with privacy curtains for closing out the rest of the cabin. There are three heads and one shower for both passengers and crew. When it comes to room for both personal quarters and stowage, space in a sailboat is, to say the least, a premium commodity. The shower ingeniously features both fresh and salt water shower heads. Soap up with the salt water, rinse with the fresh; a simple solution considering each guest is limited to 30 seconds of freshwater in their daily shower. Which largely explains why up front, Blackbeard's makes no qualms that their trips are fundamentally a 'No Frills' deal.
Okay, both bunking and shower accommodations are a bit on the tight side. While privacy might fall short, Blackbeard's likes to make a point of keeping their guests well fed, and I'm not talking warm beer and bread. Each cruise begins with a dockside barbecue at which time passengers have a chance to meet the boat's crew, fellow shipmates and get assigned a berth before making the jump across the Gulf Stream. From there on, guests are treated to huge, scrumptious banquets of freshly prepared, home cooked breakfast, lunch and dinners, ranging from pasta to broiled chicken, fresh seafood to steak. Desserts following lunch and dinner include a wealth of fresh baked goods. To wash it all down is water, juice, a variety of sodas and fresh brewed coffee, as well as rum, wine (red and white) and cold draft beer when your diving for the day is over.
Once in The Bahamas, after clearing entry formalities, forget a set itinerary. To best meet the needs and desires among each boat's list of passengers, the captain will often keep the table open to dive site requests, or for that matter, the entire 'direction' of the trip. Depending on the length of the voyage, Blackbeard's can ply the choice spots in the Bimini's to those around the Berry Islands and Grand Bahama. During their longer nine day stints, their sea going exploits will often target anywhere from the Exumas and Eleuthera to the far reaches of the Cay Sal Banks, taking in several out islands along the way.
The Stream', the Bimini's alone host a wealth of great dive sites in depths as little as six feet to impressive deepwater drops 70 to 90 feet from the surface, fringing the Florida Straits with depths close to 2,000 feet. One of my personal favorites here is Tuna Alley, so named by sportfishermen back in the '50s. A short distance south of Bimini, near Cat Cay, a dynamic reef slope, starting at the 50 foot mark, frings a wide, 90 foot deep sand valley running parallel to the Bimini Wall and Gulf Stream. Heavily inundated with winding ravines and archways, peppered with bright corals and sponges, the site seldom is without its share of surprises. In addition to the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, which still frequently navigate this stretch of reef, the area is also the popular haunt for schooling jacks, snappers, grunts, large groupers, sharks, sea turtles, Eagle Rays and such.
Close by, facing the abyssal depths of the Florida Straits on the Bimini Wall, is the site called Nodules. Starting at 70 feet, the top of the wall begins as a series of convoluted formations, bisected by short narrow ravines, which give the site its name. Past the 100 foot mark, the wall disappears straight into the inky depths. Owing to its proximity in the Gulf Stream, visibility typically falls in the 110 foot range while the current attracts everything from Eagle Rays, turtles and sharks (including large Hammerheads), to passing pelagics such as tuna, wahoo and marlin.
For more serious shark action, the crew can arrange a shark feeding at a site called Bull Run. This spot normally features several brawny, Gray Reef Sharks, as well as a few precocious Nurse Sharks. When the feeding is over the site is also a terrific place to explore, featuring a line of large, 15 foot high coral formations which form an extensive series of narrow, winding alleyways and caves.
Resembling an oval shaped scrap heap, lying in 15 feet of water, deep inside the Grand Bahama Banks between Bimini and the Berry Islands, is the wreck site of the Hesperus, a virtual fish magnet. By day, I saw dozens of large Greater Barracuda, thick schools grunts, snappers and jacks to several hefty sized African Pompano. At night the wreck turns into a bedding down spot for four to five large Loggerhead Turtles.
In addition to the Hesperus, the Bimini's region features a wide list of excellent shallow sites, suitable for snorkeling as well as for easy diving. Among the list with depths from 4 to 20 feet, include Turtle, Picket and Victory Rocks, as well as the wrecks of the Sapona and the Miami-Rita.
Near the Hesperus, fringing the stretch of deep water called Northwest Channel, is the wide expanse of the Gingerbread Grounds. Scattered across its moderate depths (ranging from 10 to 60 feet) are reef formations heavily inundated with immense heads of coral (15 to 20 foot high) resembling clumps of popcorn draped with soft corals.
All in all, when it comes to reaching exciting, out of the way sites, with plenty of on-site dive time, comfort and support, blended with the camaraderie shared by fellow adventurers, Blackbeard's Cruises does more than all right. Especially, when their price range is well inside reasonable.
For entry to and from The Bahamas, U.S. citizens need only a U.S. Passport or a verified birth certificate with some form of photo I.D., such as a drivers license. In addition to dive equipment, onboard apparel need only include a couple of swim suits, a few T-shirts and shorts, a light windbreaker and, of course, a hat. During the winter season, one or two sweatshirts or sweaters, and at least a 3mm wetsuit. Rain gear, and most definitely sun screen, is a good idea.
For booking information, Blackbeard's Cruises can be reached at P.O. Box 66-1091, Miami, FL 33266; (800) 327-9600; (305) 888-1226, fax (305) 884-4214. Or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out their Web site, www.blackbeard-cruises.com.